Chinese Funeral Culture and Grief Etiquettes — History, Tradition, and Customs

Celadon Barn of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) for Funeral Use

Celadon Barn of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) for Funeral Use — The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

What is National Grief Etiquette in Chinese Funeral Culture?

 

No later than the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), national grief etiquettes were held to mourn large-scale tragedies, including famine, plague, natural disasters, and big failure in warfare. 

 

Besides sacrificial and worship rites to pray for blessing, emperors and nobles sometimes would stay frugal and cut off entertainment activities to show their grief and condolences.

 

Meanwhile, the government would implement a series of policies to help people go through difficult times, including providing free food, free burial budgets, low-interest loans, recruiting poor people for national construction jobs, lowering taxes, loosening strict laws, canceling corvee, lowering the standards or cancel expansive celebration activities, and encourage marriage to guarantee population. 

Wanli Emperor (1563 — 1620) and Officials Wearing Plain Clothes (Su Fu) and Walking to Temple of Heaven to Pray for Rain

Wanli Emperor (1563 — 1620) and Officials Wearing Plain Clothes (Su Fu) and Walking to Temple of Heaven to Pray for Rain, on "Xu Xianqing Huanji Tu" Painted by By Artists Yu Ren and Wu Yue in 1588 ​— Palace Museum

 

What do Ancient Chinese Perceive the Death?

 

The beliefs about death and funeral have been quite diverse in ancient Chinese history. 

 

Confucianism believes that one's virtue and accomplishment are more important than lifespan, but a ritual funeral is a good way to show the deceased's accomplishment, social status, as well as respect and memories from devoted families and friends. 

 

Taoism respects the following of nature, and Mohism encourages simple funerals. 

 

Buddhism and Taoism Religion believe in spirits and reincarnation. 

 

However, in ancient history, respect and fear of death, and strong belief in spirits and the afterlife have been the most common ideology of most people. 

 

Therefore, death was considered as important as birth. 

 

This is the reason for the rich burial and complicated funeral in ancient Chinese culture.

Funeral Silk Painting about Auspicious Animals and Deities Welcoming the Deceased's Spirit to Heaven, Unearthed from Mawangdui Tomb of Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD)

Silk Painting about Auspicious Animals and Deities Welcoming the Deceased's Spirit to Heaven, Unearthed from Mawangdui Tomb of Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD) — Hunan Museum

 

General Rituals of A Traditional Chinese Funeral.

To Prepare for One's Departure

When a person is dying, close relatives would come and listen to his/her last words. In some regions, the dying person should be moved to a temporary bed in a specific location.


After the person passed away, close relatives would shower and change for him/her. Some places are also required to cover a white or yellow silk fabric on the dead’s face.

During this period, no tears could be dropped on the body, and no leather clothes should be worn on the dead; it is believed that wearing a leather shroud could make the person turn into an animal in the next life.

Then, do some ceremonies attract spirits back to the body, the means differ based on regions.

Jade Articles Used to Cover on Face, Unearthed from Tomb of A Noble of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC)

Jade Articles Used to Cover on the Dead's Face, from Tomb of A Noble of Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC) — Nanyang Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Informing Funeral Message and The Wake

Relatives of the deceased should then inform other relatives and close friends about the sad news and the burial date, either in person or with letters. 

They also have to decorate the house for the coming wake and funeral, wear mourning clothes, and shouldn't come inside of other people’s houses.

The burial date and position are usually chosen through divination, based on the deceased one's birth date, social status, and Feng Shui culture. 

This is also the wake period.

Funeral Use Furniture Models, Unearthed From Tomb of Prince Zhu Tan (1370 — 1390) of the Ming Dynasty

Funeral Use Furniture Models, Unearthed From Tomb of Prince Zhu Tan (1370 — 1390) of the Ming Dynasty — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Condolence Ceremony

Usually, on the 7th date of one's death, the condolence ceremony would be held. 

In the past, the body of the deceased needed to, companied by family, stay at home for seven days before the burial. Now the home staying period is much shorter.

Inside the coffin, the dead’s head would be towards the indoor and the feet towards the outdoor direction.

During this staying period, other relatives and friends could come for condolence, with gifts or money.

Condolence Ceremony for Xu Xianqing's Father

Condolence Ceremony for Xu Xianqing's Father, on "Xu Xianqing Huanji Tu" Painted by By Artists Yu Ren and Wu Yue in 1588 ​— Palace Museum

Enshrine and Burial Ceremony

Then, after being enshrined in the prepared coffin, burial ceremonies would be held.

Accompanied by family, the coffin would be sent to the burial place. 

Funeral procession differs according to history, geography, and financial status, but usually includes paper money, some lights, musical bands, and paper-made daily necessities (like bridges, houses, servants, etc.), Buddhist monks and Taoist priests, relatives and friends, etc. 

When they arrived at the tomb, there would be some rites before the burial of the coffin and the setting up of the gravestone. 

Funeral Use Painted Pottery Building Model of the Eastern Han Dynasty

Funeral Use Painted Pottery Building Model of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220) — Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Follow-Up Ceremonies

In ancient Chinese culture, it is believed that a person would finally realize he's left the world after 7 days of his death.

Therefore, his close family members would hold the condolence ceremony on the 7th day of his death, and hold mourning rites every other 7 days, until 49 days later. 

It means the grief ceremony on 7th, 14th, 21st, 28th, 35th, 42nd, and 49th day after one's departure.

That is an official end of a traditional Chinese funeral.

Afterward, on the 100th day of the death, each anniversary, Qingming Festival and Zhongyuan Festival, memorial rites would be held as well.

Funeral Use Tri-coloured Glazed Pottery Horse (Tang San Cai) of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

Funeral Use Tri-coloured Glazed Pottery Horse (Tang San Cai) of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (Photo by Dongmaiying)

More Facts about Chinese Funerals

 

  • For people with big families and passed away over 80 in peace, their lives are considered happy, and their funerals are believed auspicious and can bring people good luck. 

  • For people who died young and in unnatural causes, their funerals would be much simpler and different.

  • Nowadays, in modern big cities, many complicated rites are omitted, while in small and relatively remote villages, traditional grief ceremonies are still strictly applied.